Engaged grantmaking: Collaborating with communities

More funders are promoting the voices and leadership of communities by engaging them in the grantmaking process.

Written by: Caroline McCoy

Date: October 22, 2019

At the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, we’re delighted to see that more funders are using participatory grantmaking to elevate the voices and leadership of the communities they partner with and serve.

Participatory grantmaking helps shift the traditional power imbalances that exist in philanthropy by engaging the grantees who are affected by the issues that funding is intended to address in the decision-making process for grants.

For some foundations, this means including grantees in the process for setting priorities, developing strategies, conducting research and sitting on boards or advisory councils.

Other foundations are using various elements of participatory grantmaking based on what their organizational polices and structures allow.

At the core of this practice is understanding that those closest to the issue, including those with lived experience, have the knowledge and expertise to create solutions that are creating lasting and sustainable change in their communities.

In 2017, the foundation’s Communities Program embarked on its own journey of participatory grantmaking through its place-based work in Englewood – a predominately Black neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.

The program supports the activities of the Englewood Quality of Life Plan (QLP), which is the result of a community-driven process that engaged hundreds of residents, community leaders, and stakeholders.

Five task forces representing priority issue areas (education and youth development, health and wellness, housing, jobs and economic development, and safety) were formed to develop goals and strategies to help revitalize the community.

Teamwork Englewood (TWE), a community-based social service agency, serves as the coordinating organization for the QLP and provides oversight and project management for the work implemented by the task forces.

The Communities Program established Impact Englewood, a McCormick Foundation Fund, in partnership with TWE and leaders of the QLP to provide a vehicle for including community input for grant strategies supporting the QLP.

Englewood leaders and residents worked with foundation staff to raise donations, which were matched by McCormick.

Subsequently each task force submitted grant applications for projects and initiatives advancing strategies of the QLP.

The Communities Program’s grantmaking staff co-created an letter of intent and grant application with feedback from TWE and QLP leaders, and provided training and technical assistance through weekly “office hours” for task force groups with less experience creating and submitting grant proposals.

An advisory committee comprised of QLP leaders, TWE and Communities Program staff went through a process of reviewing grant proposals and recommended 6 grants totaling $140,000, which provided initial funding starting in 2018 for the following QLP projects:

  • A needs assessment to pilot a community school model at a neighborhood elementary school to improve academic and student level performance and bolster family engagement.
  • The creation of a health navigator team to connect residents to local health care services, programs and resources to increase access to care and improve health outcomes.
  • A series of community-driven and led workshops to help educate and support residents with pre- and post- home purchase resources and opportunities to increase the number of owner-occupied homes.
  • A feasibility study to collect data on the housing stock in a targeted area of the neighborhood to determine the need for subsidy money to stabilize the housing marketing.
  • A program to assist residents with job skill training and support services to obtain certification from a short-term certification or licensing program.
  • An initiative to promote peaceful and safe environments through educational community conversations centered on mental health and the effects of trauma and connect residents to mental health services and resources.

The foundation remains on a journey of learning how to partner more effectively with communities and how to use participatory grantmaking as a tool for promoting community voice, elevating power, capacity and leadership towards problem-solving, improving community-level outcomes, and closing racial gaps.

In our first year of exploring participatory grantmaking, we saw that building trust and being transparent with community are cornerstones for this work.

We learned that sharing and managing expectations – both from the community and the foundation – is critical for moving the work forward. Being flexible and willing to think outside of the box helped us collaborate better.

We also learned that participatory grantmaking requires a great deal of time and resources, but we also witnessed firsthand the power of building capacity in the community.

In summer 2019, we launched our second fundraising campaign with our partners in the community to support the Impact Englewood Fund.

This year’s campaign raised more money, and we saw more residents engage in their own targeted fundraising efforts – including 1 resident who used fundraising tactics we shared to cultivate a major gift from a local family foundation.

This resident also used donor engagement letter templates we crafted to send more than 600 letters to local and surrounding businesses and 300 emails to his personal network of contacts urging them to donate.

This story stands as an exemplary highlight among the initial successes we’ve seen in our second year. As we continue to learn about the impact of our grants, we’re already seeing progress as our partners in the community are coming to the end of the first year of funding. 

Moving forward, our focus will be to continue building capacity in the community and implementing lessons learned to create a sustainable infrastructure for participatory grantmaking to thrive.

Caroline McCoy is a program officer in the Communities program at Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Follow @McCormick_Fdn on Twitter.